My 10-year-old HP Pavilion doesn't boot modern distros anymore

Updated: January 20, 2021

I like round-number milestones. Especially if they allow one to showcase nice things. For example, sometime ago, I managed to revitalize my fairly ancient LG laptop by installing MX Linux on it. This restored a great deal of speed and nimbleness to the system, allowing it to remain modern and relevant for a bit longer.

Now that my HP machine has reached its double-digit age, I thought of upgrading its Linux system. At the moment, the machine dual-boots Windows 7 (indeed, relax) and Kubuntu 20.04. Things work reasonably well. Spec-wise, the 2010 laptop comes with a first-gen i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM, 7,200rpm hard disk, and Nvidia graphics. Technically, not bad at all, even today. Well, I decided to try some modern distro flavors, to see what gives.


Quite an elegant design for a 2010 system. Don't forget all them fine peripherals.

And give it does not ...

As it happens, trying to boot from USB resulted in a black screen and naught else. But which distro you ask? Aha. All of them! Anything that was created roughly from August last year onwards no longer boots on this machine. Older distributions still work perfectly fine. I am not sure why - it's actually impossible to get any debug information, because the whole sequence stalls one second after selecting the USB boot device, there are no virtual consoles, no output, nothing.

My guess is that this has to do with the Nvidia hardware on the machine. First, the card is now so old that it only qualifies for the rather neglected Nvidia legacy drivers - which are being deprecated faster than you can say dampfschiff. Second, most distributions rarely do any testing with this branch, and/or they only ship the newer versions of drivers, which explicitly conflict with the old cards. I've already seen this issues in the years past, but now, we seem to have taken a turn for the worse. Third, due to the proprietary nature of the drivers, most distributions do not ship with Nvidia binaries out of the box, and you get the open-source Nouveau driver instead. But its compatibility has also been quite flaky - on this laptop - so that might be another element contributing to the sad ending of this story.


Trawling through the online forums, I've found a few other mentions of similar problems. Of course, almost every legacy system issue is rather unique, so I can't draw any concrete conclusions here. But it does feel like Linux is leaving old stuff behind. 'Tis a paradox really. On one hand, Linux is well-known for being able to run (and pride itself for being able to do so) on ancient, low-end hardware. On the other hand, providing and maintaining support for an infinite amount of ancient systems is difficult.

And if you do recall my older content, I had a somewhat similar problem on my T42 laptop. Back when it had its tenth birthday, I booted it up after a long pause, and tried using Linux on it yet again. And I had problems finding Linux drivers for its ATI card - Windows drivers were easily and readily available. The problems aren't identical, but they are definitely indicative. Oh well. I may continue testing and playing with the old HP Pavilion, but I might not be able to really show you how well it carries into modern age. Hopefully, you found something useful in this wee sad article.


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